Thursday, September 16, 2010

Freedom and Accountability

Every act we perform is, in its foundation, a free one (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 49)
The western world is in love with the concept of freedom.  It is the most precious aspect of society.  Whether it is the freedom of religion or speech, the freedom to choose our political leaders, or to pursue the life we choose without fear of interference from individuals or governments, freedom is essential and paramount in all things.

However, when we move from our societal craving for freedom to our personal lives, or the workplace, we seem ready to give up our freedom and are willing to put our happiness and our level of motivation in the hands of someone else.  In the workplace we call this someone else "management".  It becomes management's job to give us rewarding work, to motivate us, to make us into high-performing individuals and teams.  We tell ourselves that our mechanical systems of rewards and punishments, measurements, strategies, or command and control structures get the behaviors that we want from our organizations.  In short, we create these devices to help eliminate the need for the exercise of free will.

Koestenbaum and Block suggest that this "escape from freedom," as Erich Fromm called it, is in large part due to the fact that "...with freedom comes accountability, and with accountability comes guilt, and with guilt comes anxiety.  Since our freedom leads to anxiety, it is easier to repress it than to bear it proudly." (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 30)  Both in our lives and in our work it is often easier to deny our freedom and allow others to choose than to make difficult choices ourselves.

But this creates an interesting paradox.  By allowing others to choose I have made a choice.  I have chosen to give others the power to choose for me, which in itself is an exercise of my free will.  Therefore, I am still accountable, at least to myself, for the results of my decision.

Arguments are sure to be put forward showing how, at least in certain circumstances, I had no choice in the matter:  "I hate this job, but if I don't come to work I will be fired.  I have no choice but to come to work."  Or, "The law says I have to pay my taxes.  I have no choice.  If I don't pay my taxes I will go to jail."

When these statements are examined more closely we see that there is an element of choice in each.  I choose to continue to go work at a job that I hate because I am unwilling to deal with the consequences of walking away from the job.  Instead of choosing to look for another job, I choose to continue working at the one I have.  I am accountable for my choice to continue in an unpleasant job instead of changing my situation.  I choose to pay my taxes because I am not willing to be accountable for the consequences related to not paying my taxes.  Regardless of why I made the choice to pay my taxes, it is still my choice to make the payment.

We are not always in control of the alternatives among which we may choose.  Having free will does not imply that life will always be perfect, or that the choice of another option would have provided us with great happiness.  But through the exercise of our free will we are able to embrace our humanity, and to take on the succession of risks that life has to offer.

Recognizing that we are free gives us the ability to exercise control over our existence, and lets us shift from blaming others for how things are to being accountable for our life.  "Once the inevitability [that we are accountable] is recognized, we will be inclined to place the full blame [or credit] on ourselves rather than on others or on objective situations beyond our control."  (Freedom And Accountability At Work, Koestenbaum and Block, 2001, P. 79)

The good news is that you have free will, and that opens up a world of opportunity.  The bad news is that you have free will, and that opens up a world of accountability.  Good luck with both.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Self As Instrument

No matter where you go, there you are. 
(Source: possibly Confucius, biblical, or Star Trek)

Many people go through life taking the events of each day as they happen, happily addressing each challenge, and then heading home with the sense that they did the best that they could, given the circumstances.  Tomorrow is another day, not to be worried about until the morning comes.

But for those who find themselves in situations that require change, where their vision of the future is different from the realities of today, and where they have made the choice to play an active part in achieving that vision, such a laissez-faire approach does not work.  If change is to occur, some sort of intervention is required.  And the only tool that any individual has to bring about change is themselves - their actions, behaviors, dialog, questions, and choices.  They must choose to use their skills and abilities in deliberate and thoughtful ways to influence others.  In short, they must use themselves as the instrument of change, a concept often referred to as self as instrument.

As with any instrument, before one becomes a virtuoso there is learning, practice, and performance.  A musician does not decide to become a pianist and immediately leap onto the stage at Carnegie Hall.  Practice and preparation is necessary before the performance.  Nor does a leader decide to become an instrument of change and immediately charge forward to success without introspection and learning.

Katherine Curran, Charles Seashore, and Michael Welp summarized the concept of self as instrument best in their November 1995 presentation to the ODN National Conference:
Perhaps the most powerful instrument we have in helping our clients navigate change is ourselves. Our ability to use ourselves potently relies in large part on the level of awareness we have about the impact we make, and our ability to make choices to direct and modify that impact.
Awareness is the key.  Developing the mind so it is aware of self, others, situations, and patterns is the beginning of being able to use yourself as an instrument of change.  Self-awareness and self-management become the first requirements.

In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman lists these as the first two dimensions of what he has termed emotional intelligence.  True self-awareness requires reflective self-examination, feedback from others, and knowledge of who you are, where you are going, and why you are going there.  Self-awareness is not something that is intrinsic, it is developed over time, often with the help of others guiding the self-discovery process.

In his book Leadership From The Inside Out, Kevin Cashman suggests:
Leadership is not simply something we do.  It comes from somewhere inside us.  Leadership is a process, an intimate expression of who we are.  It is our being in action.  Our being, our personhood, says as much about us as a leader as the act of leading itself.
Cashman's statement about leadership is also applicable when we are becoming an agent of change; it is not simply something we do.  It is a process, an intimate expression of who we are.  It is moving from passive observer to active participant.

But, why all this talk of self when what we want is to influence others to join us in the pursuit of our vision?  The answer is: through the understanding of yourself, you become a more authentic leader, one who "aligns both actions and behaviors with [your] core values and beliefs". (An Overview of Self as Instrument Using a Leadership lens and a Coaching Application, Debbie Kennedy, December 29, 2006)  This authenticity is visible to those who would be followers and companions on the journey to the desired future, and encourages the development of trust between the leader and the followers.  Also, "Followers learn by observing the positive values, psychological states, behaviors and self-development being modeled by the authentic leader..." encouraging the same behavior in the followers. (Kennedy)

You have the ability to become a leader who makes a huge difference in your organization if you are willing to devote the time to develop the tools you need to be an effective instrument of change - to develop your "self as instrument".  The journey to virtuosity begins inside by learning about who you are, developing self-awareness and self-management (and as Goleman would suggest, in the development of social-awareness and relationship management).  It continues by becoming clear on what you want to accomplish as a result of your effort, and why it is important to create a particular vision of the future.

Once you have developed the ultimate instrument (yourself), no matter where you are, you will have with you everything you need to be an authentic leader who can make a difference.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Language of Leadership

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) once said "Language is the house of being."  And, although when a philosopher speaks one must be careful about implying the wrong meaning, in this case Heidegger has said a mouthful, particularly for those interested in leadership.

Noted philosopher, author, and mentor, Dr. Peter Koestenbaum, amplifies Heidegger's statement by suggesting that everything exists in language.  Without language there is nothing (Do You Have the Will to Lead, 2002, 18 minutes into the program material).  Therefore, the words that a leader chooses are fateful.  In Koestenbaum's view, a leader who wants to change the culture of an organization must start by changing the language.  (The Philosophic Consultant, 2003, P. 87-88)

Although this can be a monumental task, it can be done.  When Dee Hock, the person responsible for the creation of what we now know as the Visa Credit Card system, was trying to establish what he called "an equitable international credit system", conflict and confusion reigned supreme.  Representatives from countries that were traditional enemies were expected to work together.  Religious, cultural, and class differences were constantly boiling just below the surface.  Open and direct communication was not part of the international culture.

In his book Birth of the Chaordic Age, Hock notes "Rarely was a person referred to by name.  The language suggested object or thing, not person. " But, as the leader of the effort, Hock began to casually, "... and, without suggesting that anything was amiss," change this conversation by always responding with the person's name, and gently questioning the characterization.  As he changed the language related to personal relationships, the tenor of the language used by others changed.  The words that Hock used were fateful - he nudged the organization into a culture that recognized its members as people, not a race, class, or nationality.  (Birth of the Chaordic Age, Dee Hock, 1999, P. 234

The language we use exposes our customs, traditions, norms, espoused and hidden values,  rules of the game, skills, competencies, habits, and more.  To use the terms of Koestenbaum's Leadership Diamond, the language we use exposes our Vision, Ethics, Reality, Courage, Polarities (and how we mange them), and our desire to achieve Greatness.

One of the great challenges for a leader is to consciously choose the right words, to create what Dr. Koestenbaum calls "an envelope of language", to construct the House of Being that surrounds the successful organization.  Your challenge is to be purposeful in your choice of words, and the time to use them.  This requires deliberate thought, planning, tenacity, and dedication to the desired outcome.  

The goal is not to ignore the things that need to be addressed by simply using positive language.  Denying the reality of our current situation does not help or change the organization. 

The goal is to use opportunities to communicate, as Dee Hock did, address what needs to be changed, and to shift the course of the organization toward what we are trying to create as a result of our effort.


For more about language and its role in leadership see the earlier blog entry A Leader's Power.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Changing Minds - The Importance of Character

Whether you are a leader of a nation, corporation, organization, club or other collection of people, one of your first tasks is to get people working in the same direction.  In prior posts we have talked about the importance of vision in bringing people together behind one cause.  But we have not talked about what to do when you have a vision that is not necessarily shared by others in the group.  The problem is not that they don't understand the vision.  They understand perfectly.  However, they disagree with the goal, methods, do not trust that the desired outcome is appropriate, or just generally think the idea is wrongheaded.

What do you do to change the minds of the people you wish to lead into the future?

In his book Changing Minds, Howard Gardner takes on the challenge of describing this process of bringing your message to your audience, and of successfully changing how people think and feel about the goals you have set before them.  Although there are many factors to consider, in this blog entry I want to focus on just one that I believe to be so powerful that if it is not properly considered and respected it will knock the blocks out from under everything you are trying to accomplish.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Money and Motivation

For decades the newspapers have enjoyed reporting about Corporate America gone wrong with stories of greed inside Wall Street and big-energy, and wrongheaded decisions by corporate leaders.  Even after so many years of learning from the school of hard-knocks, the business community continues to make decisions that cause the common person to scratch their head and wonder how such smart people can be so dumb.

We all wonder what is it that makes these Captains of Industry, and the people who follow them, choose the path that leads to having their names and faces plastered on the front page as they do the "perp-walk" into the court house?

The answers are probably many, but at least one is tied to the subject of Money and Motivation.

Without getting into a long conversation about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, "the forces that motivate us tend to shift depending on our personal needs." (Why Pride Matters More Than Money, P. 27)  Everyone is driven to fill basic needs, but what is considered "basic" can vary from person to person. 

Our drive to make money beyond the amount required to provide basic needs is tied to our motivation to achieve recognition as an important and successful person.  Corporate America has learned how to use this drive in its leaders and employees to press for higher and greater achievement of certain goals, usually the sale of products, and accumulation of earnings for the company.

This is a focus on individual success, and what author Jon Katzenbach refers to as Self-Serving Pride.  Each individual is pressed to achieve a goal, sometimes at the expense of others within the organization, and sometimes at the expense of the organization itself.  Enron and the financial market collapse are great examples of workers achieving individual goals and seeking individual rewards regardless of the effect of their behavior on the health of the company or community.  Katzenbach suggests that organizations are missing the point when it comes to constructive motivation.  He writes about the power of pride, particularly institution-building pride, and its role in motivation.

By focusing on money, organizations have found a simple and quick way to push individual performance to great heights for short periods of time.  However, it is often easy for self-serving employees to take advantage of these money-based incentives, increasing their compensation at the expense of the organization's long term health. 

But for the success of the institution over long periods of time it is important to appeal to the employee's emotional commitment, and to establish systems that support the creation of institutional pride.

Leaders need to understand that what motivates the people at the top of the organization is not necessarily what motivates people on the front line.  Therefore, the things that build institutional pride at the top (quarterly earnings, competitive advantage, brand) are not necessarily the things that build institutional pride for the majority of the workforce (working for a highly respected organization, being trusted and supported by managers and supervisors, high quality products, having the tools and systems that allow employees to do great work).

People who are emotionally committed to something - be it a person, a group, an enterprise, a cause, or an aspiration - behave in ways that defy logic and often produce results that are well beyond expectations.  They pursue impossible dreams, work ridiculous hours, and resolve unsolvable problems.

The organizations that have found ways to tap into this emotional commitment are the ones that create long term success by meeting the basic needs for all employees, and establishing reward systems that recognize individual, team, and organizational success.  The employees within these systems take pride in being part of a winning team, and an organization that is highly respected.

Katzenbach points out that "money attracts and retains, whereas pride motivates." (Why Pride Matters More Than Money, P. 128) 

In our society, money is an important part of any compensation system.  Pay must be competitive, sufficient, and focused on creating institutional-pride.  But, without other systems in place that create institutional-pride, employees will always go to the organization that offers the highest pay.

Organizations that create institutional-pride retain the top performers, gain the advantage of emotional commitment, have employees who care about the quality of the service and product, and can achieve greatness.

Monday, April 19, 2010


It has often been said that leading from the top is one thing, but leading from within the pack is quite another.  For every organization there are only a handful of top positions; positions where there is an implied right to lead, or power to make decisions.  Those who find themselves in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy sometimes question their own ability to be leaders, or to have any influence on how the organization works.

The key word here is "influence".  It is true that not everyone can occupy the corner office.  But it is also true that everyone can find a way to be a leader, to have some "influence" on how things are done, and to make a difference.

What exactly is influence, and how does it become part of leadership from the middle?  Here are a few thoughts to chew on.

Influence, as Dr. Robert Cialdini of ASU says, is the "ultimate power tool".  Those who understand how to use influence can have a profound effect on their organization, regardless of their position.

Influence has gotten a bad rap because it is often seen as a process used to get people to do things that might not always be above board.  However, like any tool, it can be used to build up or to tear down.  Properly used, influence can help your organization, team, or work group achieve things that might not otherwise have been possible.

Having and applying influence depends on a number of underlying concepts.  Here are a few to consider:
  • Reciprocity - If you have done something for me, I feel some obligation to do something for you.  When we are negotiating, if you have moved back from your opening position (a position that was most beneficial to you) to a fall back position that is better for both of us, I feel inclined to move my position as well.  "No" is not a final answer.  When you get a "no", introduce a fallback position.
  • Scarcity - People are motivated to have what they can't have, or to move if there is a narrow window of opportunity.   Helping people understand that an opportunity is short-lived can help move things along.
  • Authority - We prefer to say "yes" to authority.  If you have expertise or a background that places you in the position of being an expert, start by exposing your weaknesses, then offer your background of experience and knowledge.  Present your strengths only after showing your weaknesses.  Your authority is strengthened by showing that you are aware of your shortcomings.
  • Consistency - People like to do things that are consistent with prior actions.  Sometimes this is a challenge, particularly when the prior actions may be taking the organization down the wrong path.  However, searching for ways to show consistency is important.  Even a change of direction can be seen as "consistent" under the right circumstances.  Also, get people to commit to actions in a public setting, get them to write down what they have agreed to do, and followup conversations and agreements in writing.
  • Consensus - People and organizations like to look at what others are doing.  Leaders often import practices that have succeeded for others.  And, organizations often follow trends in behaviors that their leaders see as positive.  You can help identify these trends, bring them to the attention of your peers and managers.  And, you can use your influence to help the organization choose the paths that are most advantageous.
  • Likeness - You are more influential if people feel that you are "like" them.  This may seem like a negative trait, but good or bad, it is true that people are generally more inclined to favor people who they see as similar to themselves - people who think like them, value the things they value, have goals that are consistent with their goals, and see the world in ways that are similar to their views.  This doesn't mean that you have to become like the person you are trying to influence, but if you search for the similarities and emphasize those as you work together, you will have a better chance of being influential with that person.
There is more to influence, but by now you probably are getting the idea that you can have influence on your peers and leaders without having to have a position of power from which to work. There is plenty of reading on the concept of influence.  Dr. Cialdini has written extensively on the subject, as have many others.

In addition to Cialdini's work, I can recommend Influencer - The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson and a host of co-authors.

Use your influence for good and positive change.  Help others use their influence to improve the organization and achieve goals that lead to success.  And, don't be afraid to use influence when it is taking you in the right direction.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Imagine this scene:  You walk out of your front door to pick up the morning paper.  On the ground next to the paper is an empty take-out food container.  You pick up the paper, look at the empty container, and go back into the house leaving the the trash on your front doorstep.

"Difficult to imagine", you say.  Why?  This scene is played out every day on the streets of our communities, and in the halls of our organizations.

How can it be that in one case we can't imagine leaving trash on our front door step, and yet we will allow trash to remain on the sidewalk of our town as we walk by.  In our home, we will expect workers to do their jobs correctly, but in our organizations we will tolerate work that is only "good enough to get by"?

The difference is "Ownership".

In our example, you are (or at least are imagining that you are) the homeowner.  This is your property.  Some thoughtless person has thrown their trash on your property, and it offends you. 

When you walk down a street, or are working for an employer, your feeling of ownership is very different.  You may feel like you are part of the community, or are a loyal employee, but you are not the owner.  It is someone else's job to pick up the trash, or it is someone else's job to oversee the work of the other employees.

Within an organization, when the top leader or manager is the only one who feels ownership for the quality of the work, or the accomplishment of a goal, life is very difficult.  Everyone does their part, but only their part.  This is not out of spite, nor is it even a conscious attitude on the part of the employees.  Many feel ownership for their part of the product.  But, if the product is not completed on time, or does not meet the quality standards required by the customer, it is not their fault.  It is someone else's fault.  It is the owner's fault.

In the same organization, when everyone feels ownership of the final product, or accomplishment of a goal, the atmosphere is very different.  The top leader or manager now has allies, other owners who care about the end result, not just their part of the project.  To continue the metaphor above, you now have many homeowners who are willing to either pick up the trash on the front step, or help others do it.  But, have no doubt that the trash will get picked up.  

For a leader, the goal is to change the conversation within the organization from one of tasks and parts, to one that focuses on what we are trying to construct together.  This is not an effort to make every person responsible for every action or task.  However, when many people see what is being constructed, can speak about the end result as well as their contribution to that result, and begin to feel ownership in the final product, the likelihood of success is increased many fold.

Peter Block, an author, consultant, and expert on bringing people together, says that "Ownership is the decision to become the author of our own experiences," (Community - The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block, P. 128).  This is true for communities both inside and outside of our organizations.  When people choose ownership they move from the role of victim, employee, or observer, to architect of the world within which they choose to live.

After reading this, the next time you are walking down a street and see a piece of trash you will automatically think about whether you are an observer or an owner of the community.


I want to point your attention to the comment below from Robin Reid.  Robin is both an organizational development expert with years of great experience under his belt, and a good friend.  His comment is right on the money with regard to the relationship to ownership and decision making.  Thanks for the insight, Robin.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Teams Don't Work

Teams have become the centerpiece of our corporate and government structure.  Whether you are Toyota, the White House, or a local public works department, teams are used to take on every major task, and solve challenging problems.  Business schools have taught the wisdom of teams for decades.  So when the Harvard Business Review published an article titled "Why Teams Don't Work - An Interview with J. Richard Hackman"" in May 2009, many heads were turned.

Hackman, who is a professor at Harvard University, and an expert on social and organizational psychology and teams, says:
Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have.  That's because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.

This is not what we learned in school.  We learned about the synergy of the team, how teams help overcome the weaknesses of the individuals that make up the team, how many hands make light work, and that if you want something done better, give it to a team.

However, as you probably suspected, this is not the end of the story.  Hackman goes on to help us understand what gets in the way of creating high performing teams.

One of the primary road blocks to having a high performing team is lack of clarity regarding who is on the team.  Hackman points out that the CEO is often responsible for these fuzzy boundaries related to team membership.  There is a hesitancy to exclude people from teams, and a tendency to include people on teams for purely political reasons.   The solution: "putting together a team involves some ruthless decisions about membership; not everyone who wants to be on the team should be included, and some individuals should be forced off."

It comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked on a team that teams need a compelling direction.  Hackman warns that the process of setting this direction can be emotionally demanding, require the exercise of authority, and may arouse anxiety, angst, and ambivalence.  Not everyone will be able to embrace the selected direction, causing some change in the makeup of the team.

Some of the facts about teams that Hackman points out are:
  • Teams do not need to be harmonious to produce an excellent result,  In fact, some tension appears to bring out better performances.
  • Teams do not need to be big to perform well.  Hackman suggests no double-digit teams.  Big teams wind up wasting everyone's time.  He advises CEOs to consider his finding that "...having a huge senior leadership team...  may be worse than having no team at all."
  • Newness may be a liability.  Teams that have been together for some time perform better than teams where membership is changed on some regular basis.  Changing membership to inject creativity may hamper rather than help team performance.
  • Teams with "deviants" (people who are willing to challenge the group thinking) perform better than teams that are never challenged.

There are two other resources that you might consult if you are working within, leading, or creating teams.  The first is The Wisdom of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith.   The second is Why Teams Don't Work - What Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley.  Both are excellent references for any leader struggling with how to create high performing teams.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Everyday Creativity

Dewitt Jones, the highly regarded National Geographic photographer, has taught literally thousands of leaders some very important lessons about bringing creativity into the workplace.  Here are a few of the topics Jones covers:

Perspective - Learn to change lenses; change the way you look at challenges and problems.  Are you too close to the situation?  Are you not close enough?  Are you seeing things from only your perspective, or are there other perspectives that are valid ways to look at the situation?  You will almost always find that there is more than one right solution.

Try - If you don't try, you have already failed.  There should be no penalty for trying.  Leaders should encourage others to try, and have no fear of failure.

Patterns - We all fall into patterns of behavior, and ways of thinking.  In order to find creative solutions, we must break these set patterns.  Seeing things in a new light is necessary to find creative ways of dealing with challenges.

Technique - Train your technique so that you know how to use your equipment (tools of the trade) without having to think about the technical part of the job.  For Jones, this means being a skilled photographer who intuitively knows how to adjust his photographic equipment for various lighting conditions.  For a leader, it may mean being comfortable with the technology of your business, with computer systems or applications, or with communication channels.  The technique of using the tools should not get in the way of being creative.

- Every situation has places from which you can view events, people, and interactions.  Find the place of most potential.  This may be a place that is unusual for you, in your role as leader, to stand.  However, it is in this place where you will most clearly see what is going on down on the stage, and how you may be able to influence the outcomes.  (See the earlier post on The View from the Balcony).

Windows of opportunity
- The world provides us with windows of opportunity.  These may be instants in time, days, or months.  Be patient.  And, be ready to take action when the window of opportunity opens.

It's up to you - Whether you are the leader of an organization or one of the staff members, there is no one to whom you can delegate creativity.  If you are the leader, you affect the organization's culture.  Is creativity encouraged?  Is there a penalty for trying?  Are patterns allowed to be broken?  Do people know how to use their tools?  How skilled is their technique?  Do you encourage people to take advantage of windows of opportunity?

I encourage you to check out the very short video by Dewitt Jones - Everyday Creativity.  It is a very inspiring and information filled 22 minutes.